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The Steppes of Central Asia Affair

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Napoleon Solo waved yet another fly away from his face with a frown, unable to stop himself from gazing with envy at the Windrider horsemen sitting with him and Illya under the shade of the yurt. The Horsemen's mounts, standing each beside his own rider just outside the yurt's rolled up sides, would obligingly whisk away the bothersome insects from their riders' faces with their tails. Napoleon's own black panther daemon, Saphina, lay stretched out on the colorful silk carpet in front of him like a guardian, but her tail only twitched when a fly landed directly on it.

Sitting opposite him on the other side of the yurt, his partner, Illya Kuryakin shook his own head, blonde locks fluttering briefly as the pests were momentarily dislodged. His own arctic fox daemon, Pasha, made a half-hearted attempt to snap a fly out of the air, but Illya hushed him. Out beyond the yurt on the open steppe, the wind blew brisk and steady under the brassy sun, but the delegates from among the Windriders and Ice-bears had chosen this place, in a little dell beside a stream and out of the wind, for their meeting.

"I say again, Chieftain Ivoson, I understand your words clearly, but you do not seem to understand mine." This was Nergui of the Windriders, spokesman for the tribal heads of the Band of the Barren Heights, the Windrider Band which held control of, and demanded fees for the use of, the north-western region of Mongolia bordering on Siberian Russia. "I am not empowered to negotiate these fees," Nergui continued intractably. "No one is. The amount is derived by the collective will of the clan heads and cannot be changed."

Byrn Ivoson, menacing in his rather extensive armour, stood abruptly, filling over half the yurt with his bulk before turning to pace away. He shook himself, as if making an (altogether unnecessary, in Napoleon and Saphina's opinion) show of the heavy iron plates enclosing his powerful body, then he returned to stand at the yurt's threshold, looking around at the seated Windriders, each clad in the heavy brocade silk robes, brightly colored to indicate their clan.

"Do not think I misunderstand you, horseman," he said, teeth showing as he spoke. "I understand more than you think. I understand that this is ten times what you have ever asked, in any visitor's tribute, and that you think us gullible fools to demand such an amount."

"I do not deny that others are asked to pay less," answered Nergui cooly, "but those were other Windrider visitors, who made it clear to us what their business was on our lands. Let me bring word of your reasons for coming here to the clan leaders, and perhaps they will reconsider."

"And have I not made it clear enough?" Ivoson all but roared, "that our business is none of yours!" A little dusting of wool fibers, dislodged from the yurt roof by the armoured bear's volume, came drifting down over the party, and another of the Windriders, Batu, the UNCLE local contact, who'd been sitting next to Napoleon, rose to dust himself off.

"Perhaps," he said with practiced deference, "we have said all there is to say for now. Chieftain Ivoson, the questions you came with have been answered, I think, if not to your liking. We should all take time now, to contemplate further options, yes?"

Napoleon and Illya, along with their daemons, kept silent. They were here strictly as observers during these negotiations, but they were also there to spot trouble, of the feathered sort. Fomenting an interspecies war between the Ice-bears and the Windriders was just one of the ways Thrush might be playing this situation.

Happily, Byrn Ivoson seemed to be taking Batu's suggestion and soon he, along with his two more scantily armoured lieutenants, shortly made their farewells. Nergui and his three witnesses mounted up a moment later, riding off in the opposite direction.

"Well I suppose that could have gone worse," Napoleon said, watching them go. Batu did not ask 'how?' out loud, but his nonplussed expression did it for him.

"Inasmuch as no blood was actually spilled, nor vows of vengeance sworn," Illya put in, "you are correct. However, it could also have gone rather better."

"I'm not sure I see how," Pasha pointed out. "The Ice-bear chieftain was never going to react well to the amount of tribute being demanded, and the process for determining that amount is completely opaque. Not even other clan heads can influence it."

"The Windriders are a proud and independent people," Napoleon said as he and Illya made their way towards the UNCLE open-top range-rover and Batu to his horse, grazing nearby. "We're lucky they allowed UNCLE to have any involvement at all."

"That's true," Batu said with a nod. "But it isn't entirely true that the individual clan heads cannot influence the amount of tribute asked. The final amount is merely taken as an average of what each individual clan leader suggests. They are not supposed to collude or consult with each other, but of course they all know who among them holds some animosity against the Ice-bears, and if those few name an absurdly high amount it will naturally affect the resulting average."

"And what is the reason for that animosity?" Napoleon's Saphina asked as she leapt past Illya to take her place in the front seat next to Napoleon. Napoleon repeated the question for Batu, who was too polite to respond directly to anyone else's daemon.

"You know that there has never been any love lost between the Windriders and the Russians, be they Siberian tribe-folk, Cossacks or full blooded Romanoff nobility, yes?" Batu asked.

"It was mentioned in our briefing," Illya replied dryly.

"And that various shirt-tail cousins of the Czar's family," Batu continued as he rode alongside the UNCLE range-rover, shouting across to the two agents, "have traditionally hired companies of Armoured Bears as bodyguards… enforcers… hired muscle, as you Americans might say."

Napoleon shared a chagrinned smile with the Windrider as he paced along with them. He was still getting used to horses who did not spook at the sight of Saphina's black panther form, but the Windriders' horses were practically daemons, after all. They did not speak aloud, though they did, after a fashion, communicate with their riders silently, in ways that the riders themselves forbore to speak about. Unlike daemons, these 'spirit-steeds' came from one particular herd, running free on the central steppes, and they would simply appear at the yurt of a family where a birth was imminent. More often than not, the mare would give birth even as the human child was being born. She would stay until the foal was weaned, by which time its bond with the infant would be well secured, then disappear to rejoin her herd.

"So you're saying," Illya interpreted from the back of the rover, "that some, but not all of the clan heads may have something personal against the Ice-bears, and will do what they can to queer the deal?"

"That is one possibility," said Batu, spurring his horse. "Come to my yurt after dinner. I have begun to assemble profiles of some of the clan leaders and we can discuss which of them are most likely to be causing trouble."